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With square dancing and whip cracking, Gov. Rick Scott kicks off Florida State Fair

Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks with Adrian Land, a Brahman bull breeder, at the Florida State Fairgrounds on Thursday in Tampa. The governor, who visited other animal exhibits,  praised the role of agriculture in Florida’s economy.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks with Adrian Land, a Brahman bull breeder, at the Florida State Fairgrounds on Thursday in Tampa. The governor, who visited other animal exhibits, praised the role of agriculture in Florida’s economy.

TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott brought his signature cowboy boots to the Florida State Fairgrounds on Thursday.

He cracked a whip, scarfed some fried dough for breakfast and shuffled his feet during some spontaneous do-si-doing at the fair's "Cracker Country" tribute exhibit to Florida's pioneer days.

Not forgetting he is the state's top politician, he also doled out some money — $22.5 million in state money toward $45 million of upgrades at the Port of Tampa.

"It was fun," Scott said, "from opening the fair this morning, to getting to see some of the cows, to giving some individuals ribbons, to holding a chicken, holding rabbits, looking at some fish."

Scott was in town for the annual Governor's Day Luncheon, which marks the opening day of the Florida State Fair. He brought with him members of the state Cabinet, which held its first-ever meeting at the fairgrounds as part of the governor's effort to take that group on tour from time to time.

Two of those Cabinet members were right at home, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, of nearby Bartow, whose office has an oversight role with the fair.

It all added up to a casual Thursday, as the Cabinet did little more than recognize some hometown heroes, young farmers and a few friends.

The governor and Cabinet applauded Plant High School's state champion football team before describing that school's girls cross country squad as downright "greedy" based on its record of success. Cabinet members posed for pictures with a drug-sniffing dog and his handler, as well as Tampa lawyer and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Brad Culpepper and his wife, Monica, who is appearing on the reality show Survivor.

Even official business was somewhat light, as Scott traded quips with state pension chief Ash Williams before a presentation.

"You cannot wear a bow tie at the fair," Scott told Williams, who was indeed wearing a bow tie.

"I was thinking of applying for a job as a barker," Williams quipped right back.

Scott took the occasion to tout the importance of agriculture as a pillar of Florida's economy since the early settlement days, saying the industry held strong even as other parts of the economy, from tourism and home building, tanked in recent years.

"It's been there right from the beginning and it's been there ever since," he said.

The governor arrived slightly late for the scheduled opening of the fair, appearing seconds after the other Cabinet members had flipped the ceremonial switch to turn on the lights, around 6:30 a.m.

Following the Cabinet meeting, he toured several animal exhibits, narrowly missing a kick from a cow, which he jokingly referenced later.

He left immediately following the luncheon, forgoing a glide down the giant slide near the fair midway. Scott and his cowboy boots were bound for the airport and a flight to Washington, D.C.

Staff writer Marissa Lang contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@tampabay.com.

Restaurateur Gonzmart honored as citizen of year

Richard Gonzmart may be known as the fourth-generation owner of Florida's oldest restaurant.

But he was celebrated Thursday as a man who, from the age of 6, has represented the "heart and soul" of Tampa, generously giving his money and sweat to causes ranging from children's cancer to fallen police officers.

The Tampa Metro Civitan Club recognized Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia Restaurant, with its annual Citizen of the Year Award at the Governor's Day Luncheon, which marks the opening of the annual Florida State Fair.

Longtime friend and Tampa police Chief Jane Castor introduced Gonzmart as "a man whose life defines his motto, which is, 'Live every day with passion.' My friend. Everyone's friend."

Castor told a story about a 6-year-old Gonzmart giving away the $20 bill his mother had given him for Catholic school tuition after a nun told his classmates the plight of poor children in Central America. Having witnessed the death of a friend in childhood to leukemia, the adult Gonzmart would organize a 5k run and wine tasting to support cancer research. He has run marathons and participated in a 250-mile bike ride to raise money for cancer research and families of fallen law enforcement officers.

In keeping with tradition, Gonzmart was not told of his pending recognition until his name was announced.

Gonzmart, 58, said he was humbled to be included with past recipients, who have ranged from late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to last year's recipients, Dottie and Sandy MacKinnon, longtime contributors to community causes.

"I haven't done enough yet to receive this award," he said. "There's so much more to do."

With square dancing and whip cracking, Gov. Rick Scott kicks off Florida State Fair 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 9:47pm]

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